Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Clairvoyant (1934)

Director: Maurice Elvey                                  Writers: Charles Bennett & Bryan Edgar Wallace
Music: Arthur Benjamin                                  Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Starring: Claude Rains, Fay Wray, Jane Baxter and Athole Stewart

While Claude Rains was just beginning to make a name for himself in Hollywood after starring in James Whale’s The Invisible Man, Fay Wray had already been acting in films since the silent era, and capped a string of several horror hits with King Kong at RKO. They both managed to find themselves in England the following year and made The Clairvoyant for British Gaumont Pictures, based on the novel by British author Ernst Lothar. Director Maurice Elvey had done some exceptional work in the silent era, but his sound films are fairly obscure in the United States. And though the film wasn’t really remade, some of the plot elements wound up appearing in the Edward G. Robinson vehicle Night Has a Thousand Eyes from 1948, as well as one of the Inner Sanctum mysteries at Universal called The Frozen Ghost in 1945. In the U.S. the film was distributed by Vogue Pictures who renamed the film The Evil Mind, a misleading title that attempts to play on the associations of Rains with his Universal debut. That version also suffers from being trimmed by ten minutes, eliminating a couple of non-essential but worthy scenes.

The film begins with Claude Rains as a psychic performer who calls himself Maximus. He claims to be able to read the thoughts of his wife, Fay Wray, who assists him. In fact, they simply have a complex code of communication that lets him know exactly what small, personal items from the audience she is holding. Then he suddenly seems to go into a trance and tells a member of the audience that he must go to the hospital to see his wife, and the man confirms that his wife is sick. He tells a woman in the audience, Jane Baxter, that she’ll be taking a journey by train, and when she winds up on the same train with him the next night he goes into a trance again and predicts the train will crash. Rains and Wray, along with Baxter, get off the train and it crashes a few minutes later. Almost immediately he gets an offer to perform in London and accepts. But Rains goes back to his old act and is nearly fired when the trance returns and he is able to predict the winner of the English Derby. When Baxter’s father, newspaper owner Athole Stewart, wants to hire him he sees the face of his mother in Baxter’s face and she dies minutes later. But before she dies she makes an important connection: somehow Baxter is the one giving Rains the visions of the future, and Wray becomes extremely jealous as a result. The crisis for Rains comes when he predicts a mining disaster. When it comes true he is put on trial for causing it.

It’s not a great film, but it does move briskly and it is fairly entertaining. The script, ironically, is very good. While much of it is full of clichés, the direction that it goes in and the motivations of the characters are very good. Rains, for instance, makes no apologies for being a music hall performer whose show is just an act. This is important because it makes the visions that he has all the more genuine for the audience. Rains does a good job in the film, slightly overacting but in keeping with the methods of the day. After his debut with Universal he was given another one-film option by the studio and appeared in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When they let his option drop he went to England to make this film and afterward primarily worked on the New York stage and in the occasional Hollywood film until he signed on with Warner Brothers a few years later. Fay Wray is equally good, and equally saddled with a role that does very little to display her talents. As the devoted wife who becomes jealous of Jane Baxter, it doesn’t giver her very much to do. Mary Clare plays Rains’ mother and, once again, the script threatens to devolve her into a stereotype but pulls back just short. Her death scene is actually one of the best scenes in the film. Jane Baxter, as the editor’s daughter who is enthralled by Rains’ gift, is on par with the rest of the cast. The Clairvoyant is an interesting film and highly recommended for fans of both Rains and Wray.

No comments:

Post a Comment